Round it all up over the years and my packboating footwear has narrowed down to
Teva Omniums and Lowa Desert Elite boots.
The requirements of packrafting footwear (that is, trekking the moors and paddling the lochs, usually with a camping payload) are for an amphibious hiking boot which will drain and dry quickly while giving you support on the trail. Having been at this a few years and tried a few options, I can still say there seems to be nothing out there that quite fits my requirements which are lined out below.
First ever packraft camping trip I used my Keen Arroyos (left) and paid the price. I made the mistake of putting water duties (drainage/easy drying) above ground support (hiking cross-country with an 18kg load). With the thin soles and feeble lacing, I didn’t feel at all secure in the rough, and when I got to a long, road-walking stage the feet soon got sore. On any kind of rocky terrain or path they’d have been worse. Those shoes work fine shoreside or on day paddles, and they dry fast enough in a warm cupboard.
I then adapted a pair of less flimsy Karrimor Meridian trail shoes I got cheap, by pushing draining holes through with a red-hot poker (left). Shame, as they have an eVent membrane, of which I hear good things. They’re not a great full-on hiking shoe, but were 30 quid. Under my 95kgs the sole got mushy and the undistinguished tread offered little grip in steep or wet Scottish conditions, and was partly why I find a packstaff so useful. But they were better for loaded, rough-country walking than the Arroyos or anything else I had. And it has to be said they’re survived a regular sea-water soaking, rinsing, airing and drying pretty well for a pair of cheapies. Nothing’s came apart but it can’t be far off.
I considered something like Scarpa ZG65s (right). There’s nothing particularly special about the mid-height ZG65s except I happen to know that their chunkier ZG10 boot with a ‘BA’ last (foot shape) fitted me very well a year or two back while I was investigating a way out of my Meindl Borneo agonies.
It seems there’s a strict hierarchy of sole stiffness: trail shoes are soft and bendy and instantly comfy – suited to day walkers with no load; mid-height boots like ZG65s get a stiffer-than-trail shoe sole suited to backpackers with camping loads. A traditional mountaineering boot like a Borneo or ZG10 gets a full-shank classic Vibram sole, stiff enough for crampons and walking on rubble with a Sherpa on your back. That’s the sort of sole I’d like on a light shoe and in the end I found it Brasher Lithiums (left) fit me sort of OK, had an usually stiff sole for a boot that’s very similar to the softer ZG65 – and, best of all, were half price at £65. The stiff soles also happen to make good MTB boots and they passed a good test under a packrafting load in on the Fitzroy, although much of the time we were wading or even sinking in quicksands which were easier to get out of barefoot than with a big boot. After a couple of nights I poked through drain holes (right) on the instep and above the heel so they drain as the feet point up in a boat. It sure was nice to get rid of those mushy Karrimors, but back home on regular day walks the Brashers turned on me, rubbing blisters at the heel and then squishing the small toe due to being too narrow. Sometimes I wonder if my foot shape changes over time, although the Lithiums always were on the narrow side for me.
Membrane, nein danke Seal Skin socks, (left) short or long, take care of keeping the feet dry and warm, while they last. Who are they kidding with all this membrane footwear business? I suppose it’s necessary for comfy-out-the-box fabric boots where in the old days waxing leather worked fine but killed feet. For membrane to work it needs cleaning but in a hard-working boot the membrane will fail eventually and anyway – only works in water no deeper than your boot is high.
Amphibious footwear I’ve noted the interesting range of amphibious footwear at NRS, but get the feeling they’re cheaply made and the ‘tactical’ (that word again!) OTBs may not be much better, but cost more. OTBs make an issue of the many drain holes in the sole, but does any shoe really need to drain like a shower head when your foot takes up 98.2% of the boot’s volume? Pierre B writes about his OTB Odhins and suggests this link.
As a canoe and kayak lover myself, I recognized the same needs for an amphibious shoe with good drainage that is sturdy enough for portaging and hiking around a campsite as well as toughness. I’m living in the US and last year I had the opportunity to buy a pair of OTB Odhin boots at a really decent price. I’ve only used them 3 times since, mostly in sand and mud, but I’m really happy with them. They are comfortable and the main feeling is “being safe”. They are very tough, the drainage is excellent and there is a kind of net in the sole to prevent debris, mud or sand to get inside the boot. There are three differents insoles with drain holes you can combine as you like, depending on what you’re wearing (bare foot, Sealskinz sock or neoprene sock…) they have as well. The downsides are the lacing system which is not very convenient and the price which is on the high side. I’ve never walked a long time in them, so I don’t know if they could fit the bill in term of packrafting shoe but so far, I’m pleased with them as amphibious shoes and I’m sure they are worth a try or at least, a look.
It was also suggested I look at jungle boots: membrane-free footwear usually for military use that’s designed for frequent soaking and drying. They feature minimal leather on the uppers, with cordura nylon panels elsewhere, as well as instep drainage holes (left) like I bodged on my Karrimors, and Lithiums.
Jungle boots tend to be high to keep creepy crawlies out, but at least these sections are not stiff and so end up light. Above left is the British-made Altberg jungle boot. Silverman’s illustrate both types of Altberg J-boots which cost around £100 and use ‘amfibio’ leather suited to being soaked. I took a chance and bought a used pair off ebay; very well made with a solid, rock-proof sole, but a couple hours’ walking proved they were a little too big for me. I’ve compromised on boots before and don’t want to make that mistake again.
On the right’s a no-name J boot going on ebay from £30, or there are used army ones from just £15. Note the widely spaced lugs on what they call the ‘Panama’ sole of a jungle boot for minimal mud clogging, like a motocross tyre. Of course unlined boots won’t be warm, but as mentioned, once you’re wearing a pair of Seal Skinz, neoprene or even thick wool socks, that’s not so important, even when your feet aren’t creating heat during paddling stages.
I recall a year or two ago I was looking for a pair of non-membrane trail shoes or boots for a desert trek (rocks and sand). There seemed to be very few membrane-free boots out there, and they tended to be old-school leather types, like the Meindl Bernina or Borneo (which I owned briefly and painfully), or the similar Scarpa SL3s. Nubuck leather is nice, but the insides are lovely soft leather lined too, so it would be a shame to drench them through for days on end in Scottish peat water.
There are a couple of threads on BPL about packrafting shoes here and here. Even back then the conclusion seemed to be that the definitive packrafting shoe – with good hiking support, drainage, quick drying, but that won’t fall apart in a year – has yet to be invented because packrafting is a new type of activity for footwear: requiring full amphibuity under all-terrain loads. Some suggest canyoneering shoes like the Five Ten can do the job, but I’m not convinced. This is a day-use water shoe oriented towards grip on wet rock which means soft rubber not suited to all day load carrying.
Getting a manufacturer to take an interest can’t be so hard but how many pairs of quick-draining, hiking-tough packrafting shoes will they sell in a year? As it is, only some packraft users are into overnight hiking. But in case they’re reading, here’s a list:
- No membrane
- No mesh uppers, but a tough, quick-drying fabric that can take the knocks and is even salt water tolerant. Durability is more useful than the lightness and wet grip.
- Good draining – particularly at the heel rather than the instep, as that’s how you drain a shoe when sitting down in a boat with your legs sticking out over the sides.
- A thick, chunky sole, ideally from a boot not a trail shoe. One that offers solid support over rocky terrain and good grip in mud or wet grass. Custom insoles for comfort tuning can always be added later by the owner.
- Proper laces. Forget velcro and cinch locks – that’s for cag cuffs and stuff sacks. Laces may not be high-tech, but they’re field repairable and still the best way to get a shoe or boot to fit a varyingly sized human foot securely.
- A wide fitting (or me).
- Some provision to stop stones getting in and possibly wearing holes in a latex drysuit sock (though wearing socks over drysuit socks is probably a better solution).
- And great build quality.
Until that distant day comes I’ll stick with my Teva Omniums (left), even though they’re rather more for day-use and watery than actual overnight hikey. Update here.
One alternative could be some Crocs. Remember the Croc Craze a few years ago? Their Off Road model (left) is an acquired look like all the rest but goes for just 25 quid on ebay and weighs 180g – about half what the Tevas do. Their is no mesh or other fabric to tear or wear out or soak in water, just a pivoting heel strap and the warm and quick drying Croslite™ rubber-plastic matter which gets squeezed out of a tube every few seconds in some Asian factory.